Toby Twining Music / Toby Twining

Shaman

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Vocalist/composer Toby Twining weaves a geometric pattern of works that curl strangely at the edges, with a sort of cool formality that keeps listeners from ever putting down their sophisticated glass of wine to marvel at the results. Shaman is vaguely reminiscent of Meredith Monk's landmark album Dolmen Music, though a few notches lower (and tamer) on the avant-garde scale. It also avoids the limiting convention of lyrics, exploring instead the sweeps, groans, peeps, lilts, and yodels of the most diverse instrument of all, and these artists certainly execute Olympic-quality flips and dismounts. Citing world music influences (the liner notes also credit jazz), Twining's arrangements showcase multiple voices rather than solos, delivering quirky harmonics, percussive gasps of air, and carefully measured clusters of tone. It's this same carefulness, however, that becomes a setback for several portions of the album. The performers have an air of stiffness and properness that undercuts some of the visceral excitement that could have been tapped into -- but perhaps the compositions simply don't allow for it. Admittedly it's a double-edged sword; the notes are hit crisply and precisely to generate some wonderful harmonics, but there's something almost anti-climactic about such a talented ensemble who plays it safe by howling between the lines -- it seems downright self-conscious. However, there are still some modestly playful -- almost goofy -- passages that delight the ear and avoid any obvious category. "Himalaya," the closing track, seems to have the most staying power. Its strength comes from its relative stillness and the group's ability to convey the awe in its subject, with vaporous chills hovering above the deep foundation of chanted baritone. It's this track that makes the CD at least good enough to borrow and hear for yourself.

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